05/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Keeth Smart wasn't a terrible athlete as a kid; it's just that his little sister Erinn was so much better. "While he made rookie of the year on his Pop Warner football team, Sis became one of the top schoolgirl sprinters in New York City. When they started fencing, Erinn excelled right away. As for 12-year-old Keeth, an 8-year-old beat him in his first match. "Erinn and I were so competitive," says Smart, now 24. "But it was inspirational. Without that, I wouldn't be where I am now."
Sitting on top of the fencing world, that is. In March the saber specialist became the first American ever to achieve a No. 1 world ranking in the sport. And the fierce sibling rivalry—where the Smart sibs once vied to bring home the most trophies—has happily subsided. "I always call him up for fencing advice now," says Erinn, 23 and U.S. champ in women's foil. "It's like having Tiger Woods on speed dial."
Smart took several years to hit his stride. But he stuck with his lessons at Manhattan's Peter Westbrook Foundation—established by the 1984 bronze medalist to introduce the sport to inner-city kids—because of the challenge. "I'm amazed at what Keeth has done," says his father, Thomas, 59. "He just worked harder."
He still does. After graduating from St. John's University and competing in the 2000 Olympics (he placed 30th), Smart became a financial analyst at Verizon. Juggling his job with 15 hours a week of training—as well as some club hopping with friends—the Brooklyn bachelor still managed to outduel his rivals. "It's pretty funny to me that all my competitors fence full-time," says Smart, who hopes to better his Olympic showing next year, "and I'm still able to beat them."